Wednesday, June 1, 2016


Granted, this is hard to believe now, but back in my college days, we didn't take many photos. In fact, I have shots of only maybe a half-dozen friends from that era. But I have one of Ben. 
And that says a lot. (He's the one in the middle.)

I had just finished an intense conversation with my friend, Nor Abdullah, when I first heard the news.

She's a lovely person - aunt to my first Malaysian friend, Jurie, and mother to my favorite international student, Aqil. Recently, I'd learned that, a few years back, she had lost a young son to cancer so I had asked her to tell me about her little boy.

Amierul was quite a character, she told me. Even as a toddler, he chose to speak English over his native Malay, and spoke it with surprising skill. Unequivocally, he preferred his birthplace of Washington DC over his Malaysian motherland, and when the family moved back to Asia, Amierul demanded to return stateside. He loved cars, and cleverly called out the make and model names as the family drove around town.

I listened as Nor Abudllah poured out the stories of her spirited son and thought what a tragedy it is when a person dies before his life takes on its full shape.

* * * * *

Moments later, as our conversation came to an end, I opened my news feed and in hopes of clearing my mind, began to scroll, Within the first few posts, I received a devastating blow.

To all of Brad Needham’s Facebook friends:
Brad’s family wants you to know that Brad passed away a few days ago in his sleep.

No. NO. Nonononono.
Now, I'd be struggling to wrap my head around the passing of any beloved college friend, but in so many ways, Brad was different.

Well. First of all, he wasn't really Brad.

To me anyways, he was always Ben. A nickname appointed to him before I came along, a nickname - simple, sturdy and completely without guile - that suited him so well that I couldn't imagine him as anyone else. 

The words of the family's announcement flowed out from there, forming a perfect portrait of Ben's personality, and giving shape to the flood of memories and emotions awakened in me.

Brad was a gentle soul. He liked virtually everyone he met, was quick to greet strangers yet comfortable being an introverted loner.
So true. Ben was the very definition of affable. Like most college guys, Ben invested considerable time and energy in trying to attract the ladies. Bless him, he put forth a lot of effort for marginal results, but his lack of success never discouraged him. In fact, he seemed to carry a special fondness for the girls who shot him down, as if he felt more compassion for their emotional discomfort than his ow rejection. 
Guys always loved Ben. He was quick-witted, self-effacing and non-threatening to other guys' mojo. The ideal wingman, Ben always stood ready to stir up conversation and create an opening for his buddies' exploits. Loyal and devoted, Ben lived by the bro code long before the term was coined. 

He grew up in Portage (Michigan) and spent the vast majority of his years living there. He was happy and content being a “Portage guy” his entire life. He would want us to make sure we point out that he was the “Portage Northern Brad Needham” as he was often confused with the “Portage Central Brad Needham” that was around the same age. 
This made me laugh through my tears. This is exactly the sort of quirky, verbally-nimble banter that made Ben tick. Artfully playful with words, Ben threw out song references, random quotes, and funny quips with style and speed; and I'd heard him make this Portage Northern clarification any number of times. I'm so glad we got that issue cleared up, once and for all.

Brad was a good guy who was dealt some lousy hands and ultimately detoured from the better life we all felt he deserved. 
After we graduated, Ben and I lost track of each other. Decades flew by. They were happy years for Ben; he married, raised a couple kids, loved his job of writing and editing ad copy. But by the time I caught up with him again on Facebook a few years ago, things had fallen a bit off track. In our private conversations, Ben laid bare for me the plain facts of his life, but he never complained. Quite the opposite. Facebook was a perfect forum for Ben's endless humor, he let loose a near-constant barrage of fresh and funny status updates. It was par for the course to find seven posts in a row from the guy, especially if the Tiger game was going badly. 

While Brad died too young, he lived a good life, with much happiness and accomplishment.
That makes me so happy. By all accounts, Ben's life was full of light, laughter, and good-spirited fun. And while I would have wished for him more time, I'm deeply thankful for the life he lived. 

* * * * *
As I slowly absorbed the news of Ben's passing, my mind circled back to my friend, Nor Abdullah. Near the end of our conversation about Ameriul, she'd told me that her son loved cars so much that he kept his toy fleet with him during his countless cancer treatments. And he held his favorite car in his tiny four-year-old hand in the very moment that he passed from this life into the next. 

Such a sweet gesture of trust. 
Such a profound way for a gentle soul to make peace with dying far too soon. 

And while Ben most likely did not sleep with a toy car, I hope that when his time came, he held in his hand the same full measure of comfort and reassurance.

We give thanks to the Lord for taking him peacefully and quietly. We know he no longer has any sadness or suffering and we know the good heart he had puts him in good stead with God. We know that Brad will always be with us. 


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